(A version of this piece was published on the Indian news site WSN)
When last seen: Matt Roper in a Saigon hospital (Photograph by nurse Than Thiet Sang)
When last heard of in this blog, British comedian Matt Roper was in a Saigon hospital suffering from deep vein thrombosis. Now he is in Bangkok. Yesterday, he told me:
“I hadn’t realised how serious the DVT was when I went into hospital. They said if I had left it a couple more days I could’ve died. I have had to totally quit smoking as it puts me at high risk for a haemorrhage – and drinking has gone out of the window too.
“I need follow-up treatment for 4-6 months. I was discharged from hospital in the middle of March but was banned from flying long-haul so had to stay in Southeast Asia for my weekly INR (blood) test. I am on drugs to thin my blood and the INR test is to make sure the dosage is correct so my blood is regulated to a normal level.
“I am meant to be home in the UK right now previewing and honing material for my Edinburgh Fringe show in August, but no can do. No Fringe show for me this year as there is no time. I am gutted.”
Matt was banned from making long-haul flights, but this did not include shorter flights, so he flew to Myanmar/Burma for nine days. These are extracts from his diary:
I have a bit of an accidental tradition of landing in countries when everything is closed because of a national holiday, a religious observance or some sort of civil unrest. A prime example of this was showing up in Paris during the riots of 2005. Or landing in Marrakesh midway through the month of Ramadan for a two week holiday. The latter denotes a particular lack of planning.
As my car inches its way through the traffic of the wide, tree-lined streets which take me from the airport to downtown Rangoon, it seems like I’ve landed on the set of a movie.
Happy New Year: The locals get very wet wet wet in Rangoon
Thousands of people armed with water guns, hosepipes and buckets are soaking each other and hurling vast quantities of water at the passing traffic. This is the first day of Thingyan, the Burmese New Year celebrations. Everything is closed for four days. Apart from the temples. And the taps.
On the opposite side of the road, heading towards the airport, a tourist bus crawls past us with its windows wide open. The people inside it are waving to the crowds and getting drenched.
“Japanese?” I asked my driver.
“No!” he laughed. “North Koreans.”
Finding this difficult to believe, I asked: “Are you sure? Not South Koreans? I don’t think North Koreans can travel, can they?”
“Oh yes,” he said, “they are North Koreans. We like North Korea in my country. Good friends.”
I sit back and ponder this for a bit, with eyes glazed over, until a bucket of water comes right through the car window and into my face.
I acquire a guide. A sixty-something man named U Win, unusually tall, pot-bellied and balding. U Win wants to talk about George Orwell, which we do for a bit.
After a while, we sit in the shade of a tree, where he begins to talk to me about vipassanā meditation. “Do you know it?” he asks.
“Yes,” I respond, “I do know it.”
“Do you practise?” he asks.
“I went to a retreat once,” I confess, “but I left after three days… my back was in too much pain.”
“Nonsense!” he laughs. “Just let it pass!”
And that seems to nail Buddhist thought for me: Just let it pass.
“What about the army?” I ask quietly. “Do you think they practise meditation?”
He laughs loudly, looks away, thinks for a bit and comes back me: “No. The army don’t meditate.”
“Do they pray?” I ask. “Are they religious?”
“They offer prayers,” U Win responds. “But only prayers born from living in fear.”
On University Avenue, I get utterly soaked during this third day of the Thingyan celebrations. At first I try to avoid it but, after a while, I throw away all inhibition and join in with it, filling up buckets with hosepipes, drenching complete strangers and passing traffic. It is enormous fun.
Aung San Suu Kyi addresses a political meeting
At sunset I head up the street to the house of Aung San Suu Kyi, hoping she will be at home to soak with water and New Year good wishes.
A ten foot wall and reinforced gates prevent me from doing so.
She is not stupid. The last thing she needs is a hippie soaked to the bone offering unsolicited hugs after a busy day working hard for democracy. Anyway, as I find out later, she is in Japan.
As I move on and nightfall descends, I fall into a gaping hole in the pavement. Pulled from the hole, bleeding from a gash to the right foot, a thought rushes to my mind: It’d be terrible for a man to come to wish a Nobel Peace Prize winner a Happy New Year and end up leaving with nothing but gangrene.
I stay in the guesthouse most of the day with the dodgy foot. I have to look after the foot and let it not get infected. It’s the foot at the end of the same leg (the right leg) in which I have deep vein thrombosis. Because I am on drugs to thin the blood, I bruise easily and, if I get a cut to the skin, it takes ages to heal over. The drugs can also make me very, very tired some of the time. And irritable. Not always, but sometimes. Today has been one of those days.
This is the only country I know where they steer right hand drive cars on the right hand side of the road. As you can imagine, being a passenger while the driver attempts to overtake somebody can be a potentially murderous experience. Fingernails into the dashboard time. This is due to an episode back in the days of the dictator Ne Win.
Ne Win, a superstitious man, one day consulted his personal fortune teller who advised him on all things auspicious and how to avoid bad fortune. Soon afterwards, the people woke up to be told – out of the blue – that from now on they must no longer drive on the left. You can imagine the chaos.
Matt saw more than just the tourist temples
A French lady named Anne comes over to join me at my table. She offers me a cigarette. “Feel free,” I tell her.
Since I quit smoking, my sweet tooth has swollen fantastically and I am making little effort to discourage it from doing so. I sit there watching her smoke while I sip my tea and eat condensed milk by the spoonful.
Anne and I sit by a lake, swampish and green. The lake is full of rubbish: floating plastic bags, empty cans and the odd sandal bobbing about. There are no bins in Burma. It depresses me. So does the bit of dog shit just a few yards in front of me. And the water fountain to my right which has run dry for the last thirty years. Three dogs are snarling and growling because another dog has had the cheek to walk into the park. I quietly mourn silence as I mourn dustbins and civic pride.
Meanwhile, a young couple walk past us hand-in-hand looking for all the world as if they’ve just entered heaven on earth.
There’s a market over on 26th Street. Dead animals hang from hooks above marble slabs or over large plastic bowls flecked with blood. A bamboo cage crowded with live chickens – unaware of their delicious and hopefully well-cooked ending – shuffles very slightly by my feet. The stomach of a cow droops before me, about eye-level; the creature’s hind quarter is getting butchered noisily on the block beneath it. The tongue and the organs are all for sale. Skinned and ready to go too are all four legs complete with feet. Sellers grin widely at me, exhibiting reddened teeth stained with the residue of the betel nut, chewed for years then spat out onto the streets of Rangoon.
The streets have opened up for business following the chaos of the five day Water Festival.
Everywhere I turn, I am greeted with smiles. Genuine smiles.
Occasionally, somebody will stop me to ask which country I’m from, then which city and so on. I tell them the nearest one – Manchester.
I soon learn that you can’t move anywhere in Rangoon for running into United football supporters and, when they hear me say Manchester, they near enough explode with joy and thank me.
Cyclone Nargis: Burma’s worst natural disaster
I took the passenger ferry across the Yangon River today to explore the town of Dalah and found myself for the first time in the Burmese countryside: swampy lakes, pagodas, bamboo houses on tall stilts. The word idyllic doesn’t seem to do it justice.
Cyclone Nargis ripped through this place back in 2008 and caused complete carnage. In total, over 150,000 people died.
The junta were still in charge with absolute power and – paranoid as ever about foreigners – refused entry to aid groups who could have treated people dying from preventable conditions. Aid workers were stranded at Rangoon Airport while the junta decided – over the course of two to three days – whether or not they would be issued with visas.
I wonder how such gentle people as the Burmese could be ruled by such a ruthlessly brutal regime for nearly fifty years. They have so much grace.
Before the Second World War, this country was the leading exporter of rice in the world. By the late Sixties – six years after the military coup – they couldn’t feed themselves. By the Eighties they endured the humiliation of being lumped alongside North Korea among the poorest nations on earth.
Sixty million people ruled by an army of fifty thousand men. Men guilty of ethnic cleansing. Men who imprison and torture people who have opposed them. Men who think nothing of using rape against women as a weapon of war.
By releasing Aung San Suu Kyi – the symbol of the pro-democracy movement – from house arrest in 2010, the junta embarked on the final step of a meticulously designed ‘roadmap to democracy’. The following year, they held elections and – while not exactly a fully-fledged parliamentary democracy (the army having guaranteed themselves a 25% quota of government seats) – Burma has now at least a quasi-civilian government.
The internet firewalls have been removed. The press have been granted an unprecedented freedom. The intimidating signs which once warned civilians not to “be influenced by negative external forces” have been torn down. Heads of state and foreign ministers are returning from Burma telling the outside world with confidence that it is highly unlikely Burma will return to rule by the old regime.
Café, Yangon Airport.
Reading the paper here, I am faced with headlines of destruction and riots between Buddhist and Muslim communities in Arakan state.
U Win Tin – that wonderful writer imprisoned by the junta for nearly 20 years – is being harassed by the authorities, while reports of forced evictions by the Tatmadaw (the army) are on the increase. I don’t know what the answers are.
I wish I did.
On the other hand, the European Union has lifted the last of its sanctions, which has led to the release of more political prisoners.
Does the army use these people as pawns in the game of politics? Or are things changing for the better? I think, perhaps both.
But what do I know? I’m too romantic. I’m too callow when it comes to the reality of politics, but I do understand people. This week has left me feeling more than hopeful about Burma and that all the talk of the Orwellian state will be a thing of the past in years to come.
My flight has just been called. It is time to ascend to the skies and hope for the best.
Matt Roper is now back in Bangkok.
Yesterday, he had an ultrasound scan at a local hospital.
“They found a calcification in my flesh,” he told me. “At this point I did wonder whether the nurse wheeling me in and out of the scanning room would be the same nurse to have to lay me out. Time will tell.”